Friday, July 30, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Charles R. Knight

Charles R. Knight's most famous painting. From Norman Felchle, via flickr.

There's really no other way to wrap up this week than with Charles R. Knight, one of the three early giants of paleoart and probably the best known. His work is showcased all over the Field Museum, and casts a long shadow over the paleoart of most of the last century. Many of his dinosaurs became the iconic representations of their taxa, arguably persisting even after the dinosaur renaissance of the last thirty to forty years radically altered our ideas of their posture, physiology, evolutionary affinities, and even behavior.

Knight, born in 1874, was working at a time that paleontology truly was a new frontier: the bitter rivalry between paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope had resulted in many fossils being pulled out of the American west, and exactly what they all meant was still being sorted out. It didn't help that Marsh and Cope's bone war produced a tangled taxonomy that's still being sorted out today. Witness Knight's Agathaumas, a piece based on a smattering of fossils named by Cope. It required him to fill in with his imagination what time did not preserve.

Knight's very reptilian Agathaumas. From wikimedia commons.

An astute commenter reminded me of the Knight Agathaumas a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about a similar version, by German artist Heinrich Harder. I had seen it before, but for some reason didn't associate it with Knight. It's not one of his truly iconic pieces, though I am oddly attracted to it. It's certainly a relic of a time when dinosaurs were believed to be much more reptilian than our modern conception of them as a truly unique branch on the tree of life. This Agathaumas has iguana-like features, and you can see an affinity to my favorite Knight piece, Leaping Laelaps.

From wikimedia commons.

Aggie could be right around the bend, really. This is my favorite dinosaur painting of all time. It's not posed; it's a snapshot of these dinosaur's lives. Laelaps is now known as Dryptosaurus, and though the anatomy here isn't up to date, it's irrelevant. This is the kind of piece that plants a seed and inspires a person to explore natural history.

Amazingly, Knight was nearly blind. Not only had he inherited astigmatism, an errant rock severely damaged his right eye when he was only six. These expansive visions of prehistoric life were created by a man who had to work with his face inches from the canvas to see what he was doing.

Trachodon, now Anatotitan. From wikimedia commons.

Knight's paintings were a doorway through which artists could explore prehistoric worlds, but I also think about the impact they had on other observers. Imagine stepping into the Field Museum or the American Museum of Natural History at a time before television existed. Knight's colossal murals would have plunged visitors into the depths of Earth's history, bringing them face to face with a cultureless world, expanding their imaginations. I wish I could rewire my brain so I could experience these paintings as purely as their original audiences did.

Knight's La Brea Tar Pits mural. From wikimedia commons.

I've recommended it before, and I'll do it again. Indiana University Press's commemorative edition of Knight's Life Through the Ages is a great addition to your bookshelf. It goes well beyond his Mesozoic reconstructions and shows just how absorbed he was by nature in general, and how vivid his imagination was when conjuring scenes lost to the ages. It's also a great read, having been published in the mid 1940's, when Knight was a science lecturer as well as artist. Some of his page-long descriptions read like he was pitching them to Walt Disney for use in Fantasia: "A gentle breeze blows softly through the forest glades; the silence is oppressive, for no song of birds, no cry of an animal breaks the stillness of that shadowed land," he writes, describing a scene from the Carboniferous. Stephen Jay Gould wrote a foreword for this edition, and as a long admirer of Knight's, it makes you wonder if some of his gaudier prose was inspired in part by Knight.

More on Knight: The official website, chock full of information and images. The Open Source Paleontologist reviewed Knight's autobiography. Check out the Field Museum's Knight collection on-line here. It would behoove you to check out William Stout's Knight sketchbooks. Browse the Vintage Dinosaur Art flickr pool to see plenty of examples of blatant Knight rip offs!


  1. Thanks for recommending our book!

  2. Ya know, sometimes I hear statements of this kind being made in encyclopedias and popular science articles:
    "During the mid-1800s, the idea that Dinosaurs were active, fleet-footed animals was quite popullar."
    Leaping Laelaps is usually used as a case in point in these articles. But Charles R. Knight seems to have depicted most of the larger dinosaurs as ponderous, slow and decidedly reptillian beasts. I know that Owen noted that Dinosaurs might have been bird-like and active, but are there really many other examples of 18th century forerunners of 1960s-1970s Renaissance ideas?

  3. Well, Knight was definitely not a Greg Paul - he didn't do much theorizing and instead followed the lead of the paleontologists he worked with. Laelaps was an early piece, done during or after his short association with E.D. Cope. After this, his main champion and parter would be Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Knight's work would follow contemporary theories. So his Leaping Laelaps reflects general opinion, rather than novel insight.

    I know that Huxley was an early proponent of Birds Are Dinosaurs, and Nopcsa as well. Probably others I'm not thinking of at the moment. When Heilmann came up with his thecodont theory of bird origins in the early 20th century, it would hold until Ostrom and Bakker's ideas took root, and the idea of evolution as a linear process of progressive advancements meant that dinosaurs had to be "stupid, unprogressive, and unadaptable" slowpokes. Save for maybe a few smaller ones like Ornitholestes.

    That early era of dinosaur study post-bone wars is really fascinating to me. I definitely want to do more historical pieces on it.

  4. So Laelaps represents the consensus view of the late-1800s "paleontological community"?

    "That early era of dinosaur study post-bone wars is really fascinating to me. I definitely want to do more historical pieces on it."

    You should definitely go for it. I mean, I've read a lot of Huxley's writings on the Dinosaur-Bird connection and I've read some bits and pieces from Nopsca on his Cursorial theory of the Origin of flight, but that period of Dino-science history is still very vague to me. Every now and then we ought to be reminded that even the most basic facts about Dinosaurs (like, for example, the fact that some were bipedal) were hard fought-for.

  5. It certainly represents Cope's views, and I have read pop-sci stories of the time that refer to Laelaps as a hollow-boned, kangaroo like animal with amazing jumping abilities. I think I'll be doing more reading on it, and a post for sure.

  6. Hey, I just wanted to say great job on the posts this week! Unfortunately I've never had the opportunity to visit the Field Museum, but your posts painted a vivid picture of what I can expect when I eventually get down there :)

  7. It is hard to believe that the now head of FMNH exhibits once proposed throwing away the old and dirty Knight murals. Fortunately that idea did not last long. When the Evolving Planet exhibit was being constructed, art conservators were hired to clean the murals, a fantastic system of sliding tracks was constructed in an unused exhibit hall to suspend the art work from the ceiling while 80 years of dust, dirt, oils, and cigarette, pipe, and cigar soot was being cleaned from the canvas. To have seen them before, during, and after this process was almost like seeing them with the fresh eyes of a 20's and 30's museum visitor.

    More images here:

    And for more on active dino's, here is Osborn's 1913 description of the T. rex maquettes used to lay out the mounts that they ended up not being able to afford:
    "The lateral view (Plate IV) of this fourth pose represents the animals
    just prior to the convulsive single spring and tooth grip which distinguiishes
    the combat of reptile from that of all mammals, according to Mr. Ditmars.
    The rear view of the standing skeleton (Plate V) displays the peculiarly
    avian structure of the iliac junction with the sacral plate, characteristic of
    these very highly specialized dinosaurs..."
    Tyrannosaurus : restoration and model of the skeleton. Bulletin of the AMNH ; v. 32, article 4.

  8. Hi! I work at The Field Museum and wanted to say I have enjoyed your posts this week! And I have been promoting your blog on our facebook page. Thanks for a fun week!

  9. Thanks for that, Sylvia. I learned a lot from doing it. I'd like to do these series for other museums, as well. You folks at the Field were very, very kind to me and I appreciate the gret response!

  10. iPrep - Thanks for that info and the direct link to Rhoda Knight Kalt's page on the Field murals. Those pieces are national treasures, and I'm glad that they weren't taken off display.

    And thank you for the link to the H.F. Osborn paper. That's an incredible maquette! Almost a wolf-like pose for the crouching T. rex.


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